Wednesday, June 5, 2013

SELF-PUBLISHING: YEA OR NAY?

This is a question I've been considering for some time, and while researching the ins and outs, it's been surprising to find exactly how divisive this topic can be. While some still refer to self-publishing as no more than a vanity press, others hail it as the new frontier in the writing world, and say anyone still stuck on traditional publishing just needs to get with the times. 

Recently, "hybrid author" (one who self-publishes and works with traditional publishers) has become a buzzword, but it seems that the vast majority fall into one of two categories: the already successful self-publishers who've landed traditional contracts, or the opposite, who've gained success via the traditional route and decided to venture into self-publishing. For the latter category, many are self-publshing their traditionally published backlists in digital format, and going with self-publishing from the start for chapbooks, novellas and short story collections, while staying the traditional course for novels.

But what about those of us who haven't ventured beyond individually published short stories or poems? Which route should we take when it comes to longer work? Each has its own list of pros and cons, along with avid supporters and detractors--some so avid that it isn't only the divisiveness of this topic in itself that's surprising, but the level of animosity expressed by supporters of Route A toward supporters of Route B, and vice-versa. I've seen some nasty comments from both sides, taking it a lot farther than "vanity press" and "get with the times", such as traditional publishing supporters saying straight out that the only people who self-publish are those whose work is so crappy they'd never be able to find a traditional publisher. Then you have the supporters of self-publishing saying that the only people dead set on traditional publishing are those desperate for validation and too afraid to strike out on their own without having anyone else to blame if their book doesn't do well.

Does the debate have to turn so vicious? I'm envisioning the participants looking like this: 

Image: Carsten Tolkmit

As writers, we already know we have to develop a thick skin in order to survive. We're always going to encounter critics who aren't at all gentle or constructive, just saying things like This sucks! or A rabid monkey with a broken typewriter could do better than this drivel! But it's coming as news to me that we also need to prepare ourselves with liberal applications of skin-thickening cream simply to survive answering the To Self-Publish or Not to Self-Publish question.

Let's take a look at some pros and cons of each...

Traditional Publishing:

Someone else would deal with a whole host of things that self-publishing leaves up to you, most of which would require a large investment of time, some of which would require a large investment of money, unless you're capable of doing it yourself, or have friends with the knowledge, time and willingness to help out. Copy editing, line editing, cover design, formatting for print and digital versions, assigning ISBN's, printing, distribution, marketing, getting your book into brick and mortar bookstores...yes, you'd still pay for these things by giving the publisher their cut, but that's vastly different than having to shell out the money upfront.

If you do have to pay for the first two, just those can total into the thousands. Cover designs can be had for around a hundred. If you can't do the formatting yourself, help runs about $70. If you're based in the U.S., ISBN's aren't exactly cheap: $125 for a single, $249 for a lot of ten, $575 for a hundred, $1,000 for a thousand, as of this writing. And no, we can't just get them from another country where they're cheaper (or free); they have to be issued in the country where the publisher's located.

To my knowledge, bargain hunting isn't really possible in the ISBN category, or at least not advisable, because if you don't buy your ISBN's directly from Bowker, whoever you do buy them from is listed as the publisher, and indie authors are better served being listed as their own publisher. See an informative article on this confusing-for-newbies topic here.    

The ISBN issue can also be confusing in another way: how many you'll need for a single book. You can publish on Kindle, at least, entirely for free, because ISBN's aren't required. You can also publish an iBook without one, but only if you offer your book for free. Most self-publishing gurus say you should still assign one, and it's an absolute necessity for print versions. Beyond that, you'll also need separate numbers for each digital format.

Another potentially hefty cost, unless you're going digital-only: printing. Prices vary widely, but I've seen advertised rates for paperbacks as low as $3.00 a unit and as high as $6.00. Of course hardcovers get a lot more expensive; examples I've seen start around $9.00.

Then comes distribution, which shouldn't cost you much of anything if you're digital-only, but if you want to see your books in bookstores, you'll either have to ship or drive them there, neither of which would be cheap--even if you stick close to your local area, gas prices are scary nowadays--and that's assuming you can convince store owners to stock your books in the first place.

Which brings us to marketing, an aspect where it's impossible to even guess at the going rate because the options and costs are virtually limitless. Of course some methods are free or cheap: word of mouth, promoting your book on your Facebook page and other social media, advertising on a blog or website you operate anyway so any costs are already incurred, printing up flyers and leaving them at libraries, coffee shops, indie bookstores (to my knowledge, chain stores don't allow indie authors to market wares within their walls, and you might run into problems receiving permission from some indie stores, as well), giving away a few copies to be passed around by friends and acquaintances or serve as "community copies" in the sorts of places that have a free lending library, as some coffee shops do. But the sky's the limit--or really, your wallet--once you go beyond that into purchasing actual advertising on the web, television, radio, in newspapers and magazines. 

Do you have to invest a lot of money into marketing? No, and some self-publishers even speak against investing a lot of time, saying you should spend it writing your next book instead, that expanding your catalog will serve as a form of marketing in and of itself. See Suw Charman-Anderson's Forbes article on the subject, which links to Kristine Kathryn Rusch's blog post on the subject, along with a previous article discussing a survey on self-publishing by Taleist

Then there's the argument that traditional publishers don't really end up doing a lot of marketing, that you as the author still need to devote as much or more time (and perhaps money, if you still chose to advertise on your own) to promoting your book as they would. (See #3 on this list.)

And of course there's always the argument of it being necessary to sell out in order to be accepted by a traditional publishing house, that you're just a number to them, they're all about the Almighty Dollar.

I don't have any experience with traditional publishing houses, so I can't attest to how they treat their authors. But Kristine Kathryn Rusch's blog post also discusses how lengthy of a process you could be in for before your book's actually published, should you go the traditional route. Years.

Which brings us to...

Self-Publishing:

It won't take years to see your book published. Once you've reached Final Draft stage and worked your way through formatting and the like, or paid someone else to do it, your digital version can be live in as little as 24 hours, and a print version can be in your hands--and the hands of at least a few of your readers--inside of a week.

You won't have to deal with query letters, book proposals, contacting who knows how many agents if you're looking for representation or who knows how many publishers if you're going to straight to the source, which is actually impossible with many, as they only work with agented authors.

Barring any issues with plagiarism and objectionable content (the definition of which "the publisher" is free to set; really the publisher would be you, the author, but in this context: Amazon, Apple, etc.), you're allowed complete creative control.

Unless you choose an option that requires some sort of exclusivity, such as Kindle Direct Publishing Select, you retain all rights to your work and don't have to enter into contracts, other than those regarding payment and whatever User Agreement variety "the publisher" requires in order to use their services at all.

And you get to keep a larger percentage of royalties.

BUT, and this does deserve to be a BIG one: will there be any royalties in the first place?

In my mind, that's the truly scary thing about self-publishing: what if your book doesn't sell, after you've invested all that time and potentially invested a great deal of money?

Of course there are exceptions, those shining success stories to salivate over, but those are few and far between. Unless the articles on the subject are wrong, most self-published books sell less than 150 copies, and most indie authors earn less than $500 a year. Sure, some of the books probably aren't very good and don't deserve high sales, but that's also true in regard to traditionally published books that do have high sales. Just the same as it goes for musicians and actors and every sort of artist, a lot of it's about being in the right place at the right time, getting that big break.

Should the financial part matter, unless you are in it for the money? That's the rub. If you can't manage all the DIY, unless you're independently wealthy or at least pretty well-off, it does matter. Can you afford to operate at a loss? Can you afford the initial outlay at all? If you muddle your way through the DIY route anyway, will you end up with a chintzy looking book that will turn readers off? Even if the interior holds the next Great American Novel, who's going to read it if they can't get past the horribly designed exterior? (One potential path to Funding City that more and more writers seem to be taking: Kickstarter. If you can run a successful campaign, down the well-funded highway you go.)   

I've always been interested in self-publishing, and once it's all said and done, I'm still falling on the YEA side of the line. But for somebody new to the whole publishing game, learning the ins and outs isn't easy, and taking on the entire ball of wax is a scary prospect.

But for an avid horror reader and sometimes-horror writer, that should be familiar territory, right?

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